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Last August, I sat in on the two-month-old Housing Conditions Court, where you can sue your landlord to get code violations fixed in a matter of weeks. This week, Judge Melvin Wright updated the Office of the Tenant Advocate on how the court has fared for the last year.
Here are the stats: 188 cases have come through his courtroom (which is only in session on Mondays). 140 of them have been closed, and 94 percent of those got taken care of within 150 days. That’s not huge volume—Wright says the court hasn’t been overwhelmed—but he expects the numbers to keep growing as more people learn about the court.
The biggest difficulty, though, isn’t getting tenants to sue—it’s getting landlords to show up in court. A contract is pending for a process server who’ll be able to track more people down. In the mean time, Wright does his best through other means, which in one case included calling a delinquent landlord’s mother personally. That worked. “Unlike most courts, I’ll call you in a minute,” Wright said.
At the meeting, a few tenant advocates asked what Wright is able to do about people who don’t take their landlords to court out of fear of retribution. “There’s just so much fear out there,” one said. The judge’s response: He knows it’s happening—”Lady Justice has blinders on, but we don’t”—and ultimately, it’s not his responsibility.
“Here’s what I have to say about intimidation,” Wright said. “You have to have courage. If you let a bully bully you, you’re going to be bullied until it ends…at some point, you’re going to have to stand up for yourself and not be intimidated.”
Which is a good lesson in general.